Billie Holiday – Billie’s Blues

When you look up the word “singer” in any dictionary, if it said nothing else, it should say “Billie Holiday”.

Billie Holiday defined what every singer should aspire to achieve: to take any song they are given and make it their own. Billie Holiday knew no other way to sing. She never received any musical training, she had absolutely no singing experience the day she walked into a nightclub asking for a job, any job, just so she could eat. They asked her if she could dance. She tried, but failed miserably. They asked if she could sing. She gave that a shot. A legend was discovered.

Life was not kind to Billie Holiday. Music made it easier for her, and while it did lift some of the burden for a time, it never made her life easy. In her singing, along with the pain, Billie Holiday’s voice always carried a note of strength and fortitude. “Lady Day”, as her friend and long time collaborator Lester Young referred her, would go on to influence countless artists in the decades that followed her.

Sadly, the same night Billie Holiday sang her first song, at that same nightclub, she also had her first drink. Alcohol would prove to be Billie Holiday’s nemesis. She died in 1955 at the age of 44 from cirrhosis of the liver, ending the 20 year career of a jazz legend.

Foghat

There are blues rock bands and there are blues rock bands…and then there are real blues rock bands like Foghat.

I’ve heard some modern artists today talk about being real. It’s almost become a cliché – sometimes it’s all talk. If you want to listen to a band that walked the walk…if you want to hear a band that was real, listen to any Foghat album.

Foghat was all about American blues rock. They played it hard and true. So true, that when most people first heard them, they didn’t realize they were a British band. As for me…well.. guilty as charged.

It wasn’t until I started digging back into Foghat’s early catalogue that I realized they weren’t an American blues rock band. Actually, it wasn’t until I dug beyond that. After going back to their eponymous debut, I was curious about how Foghat started; where they came from. And then I learned that Foghat was born from the ashes of Savoy Brown.

But wait…Savoy Brown was British…Holy crap! That meant that Foghat had to be…NO F’ING WAY! Foghat was a Brit band?!?! Up until then, I thought these guys were a tried and true American blues based rock band.

Then it dawned on me. That is what Foghat really is – an American blues based rock band. Sure, they came from across the Atlantic, but American blues is where their heart was. It’s what inspired them. It’s what they loved to play. It’s all they ever played. It’s what made them real.

Foghat was the most real American blues rock band ever. They just happened to be British.

David Gilmour – About Face

The future of Pink Floyd was uncertain in 1984. The band was going through turmoil and fans like me were guessing there may not ever be another album by them. That’s why I grabbed a copy of David Gilmour’s second solo album when it came out in 1984.

I had been somewhat disappointed by Pink Floyd’s album that came out the previous year. It’s not that “The Final Cut” was a bad album, it was just that it treaded no new territory, sounding like a continuation of the mostly Roger Waters epic “The Wall”. To me, Pink Floyd was always about doing something different new; going in a direction they hadn’t before. One album always sounded distinctly unique from its predecessor, yet still sounded like Pink Floyd. Enter “About Face”.

I’m not saying that “About Face” sounds like a Pink Floyd record; at least not totally. I remember reading that some of the musical ideas on it were presented as ideas for “The Final Cut” but were rejected by Roger Waters who made that album more of a solo project than the next Floyd album. His loss.

There are strong influences of where Gilmour had come from on “About Face”. His guitar had the same distinct tone heard on Pink Floyd albums, but there was more. Reggae influences on “Cruise”, funk/R&B on “Blue Light”, full orchestration on the instrumental “Let’s Get Metaphysical”, a couple straight ahead rockers – it was nothing like an album Pink Floyd would have ever done, which is why, to me, “About Face” sounded like what the next Pink Floyd album could have been. It wasn’t though. It was a David Gilmour solo record, which in the end, was just as good.

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Gold

Despite coming from the San Francisco Bay area in California, Creedence Clearwater Revival had a sound rooted in the Delta blues of the deep south. It wasn’t until many years after I had first heard them that I learned they weren’t from Louisiana or Mississippi. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who made that assumption when they first heard CCR.

Creedence was one of the most successful bands in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but that success came with a price. The band had a bitter split up in 1972 and numerous lawsuits resulted over the rights to the use of their music. At one point, while pursuing a solo career, lead singer and primary songwriter John Fogerty was sued over royalties for performing CCR songs on stage; songs that he himself had written. The rift between the members ran so deep that even when CCR was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame more than 30 years after the band’s demise, Fogerty refused to take the stage with the other members at the ceremony.

Gold is a great collection of the biggest hit songs by Credence Clearwater Revival. All of the songs on it are timeless staples of classic rock radio. The album cover is also one of the coolest released by any band. Four silhouettes, one representing each band member is die cut and cascade layered, one on top of the other. Behind each silhouette, there is a photo of the band member in the silhouette.

Great album cover. Great band. Great songs. There’s nothing not to like here.

Procol Harum – Grand Hotel

Procol Harum was a band that could combine classical and rock music better than most any other band. “Grand Hotel” was Procol Harum’s first studio album without guitar virtuoso Robin Trower who left to pursue a solo career in 1972. Fortunately, Trower’s departure didn’t affect the band’s sound very much. Like their previous albums, “Grand Hotel” was an avant-garde blending of baroque era classical music with blues and rock.

Because of its unique combination of styles “Grand Hotel” is an album I can listen to almost any time, although I prefer it to be at times I can really focus on the interplay of all the musical elements and shifting rhythms and time signatures. Although not a concept album by definition, “Grand Hotel” is an album that should be listed to as a whole. As with most Procol Harum records, it is obvious that the goal when recording it was not so much to have a hit single as it was to album that is an intriguing listening experience.

B. B. King – Live At The Regal

It was on a cold night on November 21, 1964, in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, when B. B. King recorded one of the most highly regarded blues albums of all time.

There’s a reason B. B. King is a blues legend. To know that reason, all you need to do is listen to “Live at The Regal”. The blues is meant to be more than just listened to; it’s music that needs to be felt. That cold November night at The Regal Theatre, B. B. King felt it and just as importantly, the audience felt it. Then again when I listen to B. B. King’s distinct voice and guitar, the real question I have to ask with “Live at the Regal” on the turntable is “how could you not?”

Billy Joel – The Bridge

Billy Joel was such a versatile artist, he never needed to change his style to keep having hit records. They were always universally appealing.

Like Billy Joel’s previous records, “The Bridge” was filled with a huge array of musical styles and influences. A few of those musical influences appear with Joel on this, his tenth studio album. Ray Charles adds his unmistakable bluesy piano and voice to the song “Baby Grand” and Steve Winwood’s Hammond B3 helps Joel cut loose on “Getting Closer”, the rocking closer on the album.

Surprisingly, neither of those two songs were hits off of “The Bridge”, although “Baby Grand” was released as the fourth single from it. I don’t think Billy Joel was too concerned about that song’s lackluster sales. “The Bridge” still gave the entertainer three top 20 hits with “Modern Woman”, “This Is the Time” and my personal favorite from the album, “A Matter of Trust”. That song will always have special meaning to me as I was getting over some trust issues I had at that time in my life. It was the reason I had to buy “The Bridge” when I first heard it.

Rory Gallagher – Photo-Finish

If there was ever such a thing as Irish blues, Rory Gallagher would be the king.

Photo-Finish is Gallagher’s ninth album. A return to his more stripped down sound of a power trio, this album showcases just what an incredible guitarist Rory Gallagher was. The song writing is solid and Gallagher’s playing is top-notch throughout, every now and then feeding a little Irish flavor into his solos. There isn’t a throw away track anywhere on this album.

Album after album, Rory Gallagher always played his brand of a no-compromise blues rock. Although he may not have sold as many albums or be as widely known as some of his contemporaries like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, he was right up there with them when it came to song writing and six-string talent. As a matter of fact, both Clapton and Page have cited Rory Gallagher as an influence to their playing.

Janis Joplin – Pearl

Not every artist achieves their true masterpiece. In 1971, Janis Joplin released her true masterpiece. Sadly, she died three months before it came out. She was only 27.

Janis had one of the most soulful and passionate voices in rock and roll. I wouldn’t say it was a good voice, at least not by traditional standards, but Janis knew how to use it to wring every ounce of emotion out of any song.

Two of the most memorable songs on “Pearl” are “Me and Bobby McGee”, a song penned by Kris Kristofferson, and the a capella “Mercedes Benz”. The latter is the last song Janis recorded; she died three days later from a drug overdose.

Stray Cats – Built For Speed

In the US, the Stray Cats pretty much single-handedly revitalized the popularity of rockabilly music in the 1980s. As much as anything, the success of that revival was due to the guitar talents of Brian Setzer.

Rockabilly is rock and roll in one of its earliest forms. Combining old-school country music along with rhythm and blues and a lot of attitude, rockabilly first became popular in the early 1950s. Somewhat limited in the core of its scope, other influences quickly merged with rockabilly, morphing away from the earliest style of rock and roll. This left rockabilly regarded as nothing more than an oldies piece of musical nostalgia.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s some bands tried to revitalize rockabilly by infusing a little punk rock attitude into it. None were more successful than Stray Cats. Brian Setzer was the lead guitarist for the Stray Cats and not only did he have the persona to bring attention to the band, his guitar playing demanded you to listen. Setzer could keep pace with, and even outplay any of the hard rock and metal shredders around then…and now. It just wasn’t as noticable because his solos were played on a hollow bodied Gretsch guitar with a semi-twangy tone instead of an overdriven solid body electric. It was that guitar virtuosity helped the Stray Cats stand out and turn rockabilly into something new in the 1980s, making it more than just nostalgic oldies. It also helped their US debut sell over a million copies.